Don't Start a Riot

Fourteen years after Bradley Nowell's tragic death, Sublime (With Rome) are back and headed for a town near you

In the summer of 1995, Sublime headlined the Warped Tour, performing to tens of thousands of screaming fans. The band’s now-legendary wild antics—as well as those of Nowell’s pet dalmatian, Louie, who bit people and relieved himself onstage during performances—grew more unhinged, and several bands threatened to walk, so Sublime were cut from the tour. Nowell’s heroin problem followed the band to Texas, where they recorded what would be their platinum-selling third album. Halfway through, producer David Kahne, whose credits included the genre-defining 1988 ska-punk album by Fishbone, Truth and Soul, had no choice but to send the strung-out vocalist home.

Nowell’s widow, Troy DenDekker, says this low point marked a turnaround of sorts. A fan of Sublime who grew up in San Diego, DenDekker began dating Nowell in late 1994 and had just given birth to his son, Jakob. With advance money from MCA Records, the couple had moved to a beachfront house in Surfside, and Nowell, a lifelong surfer, seemed happier than ever.

“While I was pregnant, he stayed clean for six months, which was the longest he’d ever stayed clean,” DenDekker recalls. In May 1996, Nowell and DenDekker were married at a Hawaiian-themed ceremony in Las Vegas. “He was clean at our wedding, but then, four days later, they put him on the road.”

John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album
John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album

Three days into the tour, Sublime performed a show at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma and spent the night in Chico. Wilson recalls waking up in a house where the band’s hosts, a couple of girls they’d met the previous night, were smoking crack. “That was the breakfast scene,” he says. “And that’s probably where Brad scored his dope.” The next day, the trio drove to San Francisco, where Nowell and Gaugh shared a room at a beachfront hotel in preparation for a concert in town the next day.

Nowell, who was fresh in his sobriety, was exhilarated at the prospect of their upcoming European tour, Gaugh recalls. “He was like, ‘Man, we did good,’” Gaugh says. “‘I’m going to go out and party.’”

Wilson spent the night in a motor home parked next to the hotel. At dawn the following morning, Nowell knocked loudly on Wilson’s door, hoping he’d join him to walk the dogs. “He had probably been up all night,” Wilson recalls. “It was a beautiful morning, but I was like, ‘Fuck you’ and went back to sleep. I was hung-over. I was the last person to see him alive.”

It was May 25, 1996. Nowell was 28 years old. Gaugh woke up at about 11 a.m. that morning in the hotel room. “I was asleep in the other bed,” he says. “When I woke up, he was laying half in the bed, half off.”

*     *     *

Barely a year old when his father died, Jakob Nowell is now 15 and sports a jaunty Mohawk. Despite all attempts by various family members to keep him from becoming a musician, he has already started playing the guitar. DenDekker says she has even taken him to see a couple of Sublime tribute bands, like Badfish and 40 Oz to Freedom. But, she says, Jakob isn’t wild about the fact his dad’s former band have reunited under the same name with a new lead singer.

After the new lineup performed before an ecstatic crowd of teenagers late last October at Cypress Hill’s two-day Smokeout Festival in San Bernardino, DenDekker filed an injunction on behalf of herself and Jakob that led to a restraining order preventing the group from performing under the band’s original name.

“As Brad’s heirs, and with the support of his entire family, we only want to respect his wishes, and therefore have not consented to Bud and Eric calling their new project ‘Sublime,’” she stated in a press release a week before the injunction. “We have always supported Bud and Eric’s musical endeavors and their desire to continue to play Sublime’s music . . . [but we] feel compelled to take the appropriate legal action to protect Brad’s legacy.”

On Feb. 16 of this year, however, both parties announced they’d reached an out-of-court financial settlement that would allow the band to perform the entire Sublime catalog as Sublime With Rome. “Both parties are happy working together,” Gaugh says. “For business reasons, we had to keep the two companies separate and figure out how they are supposed to interact together. It was basically a way for a bunch of lawyers to make a bunch of money off us.”

DenDekker says she knows Nowell would want Wilson and Gaugh to continue playing the music they loved so much. “I know he loved Bud and Eric,” she says. “He would want the best for them, and I’m really happy at the response they’re getting at the shows. All the fans are singing along to all the words. There’s this spirit, like Brad is there for a second, and it’s fucking awesome.”

Gibson says she overcame her ambivalence when she finally agreed to see Sublime With Rome perform live at the Hollywood Palladium in April. “I was terrified,” she says. “I was so overwhelmed. The fans were going crazy. I remembered standing on the stage watching him so many times when I was younger, and everything was the same, except Brad wasn’t there. It was so surreal.”

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